Monday, 23 September 2013

Dealing with overcrowded cycle-routes in Groningen by encouraging students to make faster journeys

The stencils show how to get
to the centre and the Zernike
campus using an existing but
less busy route
We visited our daughter at her student accommodation in Groningen a few days back and noticed that some unusual symbols had been stencilled onto the cycle-path near her home.

My daughter explained to us what was going on. Alternative routes were being suggested to students at the Zernike campus on the North of Groningen to reduce strain on the existing route.

Cycling in Groningen continues to grow. Three years ago it was known that over 14000 cyclists per day were using Zonnelaan. I featured a bicycle counter on Zonnelaan in a blog post two years ago. Busy bicycle routes might seem like something to boast about but really they're a sign of a problem, a sign of too many cyclists being funneled into a single route rather than having a choice if routes which provide efficiently for each user.

Marketing to students:
Did you stay up too late last night ?
Stayed in bed too long ?
Too long in front of the mirror ?
All good reasons to try the new
faster route.
Addressing the problem of an overcrowded cycle-path
The Zonnelaan cycle-path could be widened and upgraded, but it would still pass through several sets of traffic lights at which there are delays. In any case, high numbers of people on one route are not really a measure of success.

Cities in the Netherlands have an extensive grid of bicycle routes. This should avoid a funneling effect due to everyone taking the same route. Other viable routes to the Zernike campus already existed, but students are a transient group who do not necessarily look for alternatives. This is why it was decided to inform students about the alternatives. In this case, marketing worked because and only because the routes already existed.

There are many possible alternative routes, but the council picked options which don't have traffic lights on them. These routes are advertised as the "smart route" to take. If students follow these routes then the can make their way through the city with no traffic lights at all because the recommended routes are almost completely unravelled from the motor vehicle routes.

The suggested routes start from parts of the city with much student accommodation and head towards the Zernike campus. My daughter lives in the North and travels to the centre. She was already using one of the routes in the opposite direction to get to college.
The new routes were advertised to students during the first few weeks of this new term. This has been publicized on local TV and newspapers and people have been employed to present the information, especially to new students who have just arrived in the city and who have not already become used to another route. Colourful signs accompany the stenciling on the cycle-paths to make the routes easy to follow.

"Je bent op tijd als je de slimme route rijdt"
"You'll be on time if you take the smart route"

What do the new routes look like?
The route between my daughter's accommodation and the city centre was already of very high quality. Nothing has changed apart from adding stenciled guidance and signs to help students at Zernike to find the route.

The alternative routes are of high quality and were already quite well used. This is a very good direct cycle-route with few reasons for cyclists ever to have to slow down or stop.
Student boom
The presence of students in a city almost always increases the cycling modal share. It only works, of course, if other things come together. The cycling infrastructure needs to be good, and that of Groningen, like other Dutch cities, is good by world standards. However, Groningen's infrastructure is not particularly good by Dutch standards - something which is in part hidden by the huge number of students cycling. The huge rise in parking of bikes at the railway station is also a symptom of this. The cycle parks are most full at weekends when students use the railway station to access free public transport at weekends.

Not everyone is happy about this
There are sometimes unexpected consequences of trying to solve problems like this. Quite apart from my daughter's fear that her route would become too busy, it turns out that local businesses don't like cyclists being redirected away from them:

"Businesses on the Zonnelaan are not happy with the new cycle routes"

The first person interviewed says that when he started his business 25 years ago research showed that 10000 cyclists per day were using the Zonnelaan route. That's why they located there. The number of cyclists past his door has more than doubled since they started the business. Like other business owners on the route, he's disappointed that the local government is redirecting passing traffic away from his door as this could result in less business. The local government has organised a meeting to try to address these concerns.

In the Netherlands, shopkeepers like cyclists.

A race
Three people from a courier business in Groningen tried out the new routes to see which was really fastest. First and second place in their race were taken by the cyclists who took the new routes:

The stencilled markings on the cycle-paths may look to American eyes rather like "sharrows". However this is a cycle-path, not a road. "Sharrows" are not real cycling infrastructure and they do not exist in the Netherlands. Thankfully. It's important that the good examples are used for inspiration not the bad.


bz2 said...

They're doing something similar in Utrecht, where they're encouraging people who don't have their destination in the city centre to avoid the overcrowded main through route via Potterstraat by marking the alternate routes clearly. I don't have high hopes, people will generally stick to what's most obvious.

Grammar note: 'je' and 'jouw' are interchangable in some meanings (modulo emphasis) but not in the caption for the first video.

Slow Factory said...

I will eat your wooden shoes if no one says that those markings are "sharrows".

James Murphy said...

One of the things I suggest to commuter cyclists is to regularly explore alternative routes (assuming that there are alternatives - which there usually are in urban and suburban environs). By regularly I mean once ever week or two.

Even if you don't find faster routes its always nice to know the alternatives and they may turn out to be better for other reasons (e.g. missing awkward junctions).

We've been living in Consett for 16 years, I found a cut through that avoids a single lane, traffic light controlled, bridge (as it happens over a nice paved bit of "linear park" that's hard to get on and off) about 3 months ago...

The only problem I had is that whilst its easy to take a bit of time to get lost on the way home, rather harder on the way to work...

an3z said...

I went to university in groningen during the 90s and can say the Zonnelaan is dreadful for cyclists at certain times of the day. WAY too busy. I adapted my route and went through neighborhoods instead later on avoiding the Zonnelaan (which is an arterial road) as much as possible. I have subsequently used this tactic of avoiding arterial roads in different towns and the result can be quite pleasing. Going through neighborhoods may look longer on a map but youre avoiding so much hassle with cars and traffic lights/intersections. I could recommend this to any cyclist anywhere. Im glad theyre showing freshman students this alternative as it took me at least 2 years to figure it out for myself.